Equity, Webcams, and More

Equity, Webcams, and More

Consider the connection to equity when asking or requiring students to have their cameras on

Sustainably and systemically focusing on equity (everyone gets what they need), diversity (the combination of people of different backgrounds), inclusion (everyone is invited in and feels they belong), and justice (breaking down the barriers between groups) is a challenge for most schools. The addition of COVID-19 magnifies this difficulty causing many teachers and school administrators uncertainty as to how to meet educational and equity needs at the same time.

I believe students need to be seen and heard in their classrooms, and schools are tasked with helping them learn to use their voices and become visible in ways that work for them. With COVID-19, we find ourselves needing to be differently mindful of students and to be sure to see and hear our teachers.

Emily Style writes "education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected" (Curriculum As Window and Mirror, 1996).By continually asking ourselves to view each decision through the lens of equity, we are better able to make decisions in a multi-faceted way, providing both windows and mirrors.

When considering equity questions, I remind myself to recognize, acknowledge, know, remember, understand, ask, share, and apply. Putting this framework into practice, let's briefly address a commonly asked question “How is asking students to have their cameras on during class connected to equity? We just want to be sure our students are paying attention.”

  • Recognize your limitations. Even the most engaged teacher or administrator cannot recognize and plan for every inequity. While knowing this is true, it is equally important to think about it as the beginning rather than the end of the discussion highlighting the necessity of our ongoing learning about our biases, including multiple points of view in decisions and creating an atmosphere of openness to learning more.
  • Remember, we are in each other's homes without an invitation, permission, or a conversation ahead of time. Liza Talusan, Ph.D., a strategic consultant, and educator working a webinar about this topic offers, "For many, a home is a private place, separate from work, school, and life outside of its doors. Yet, virtual learning thrust teachers, leaders, coworkers, and peers into this private space. With a focus on content, curriculum, meetings, delivery, and engagement, the boundary between home and 'outside of home' quickly became blurred with little to no regard for how this boundary-crossing impacts the environment." 
To get the school going as quickly as possible we often missed the step of discussing how we enter each other's spaces. This intrusion into each other's most intimate areas is exposing to students, parents, and teachers and creates a sense of vulnerability. Seeing into each other's spaces can also give the false sense that we know each other better, which may be true of some and is probably more true for those whose circumstances at home are not a source of discomfort, embarrassment, or judgment.
  • Consider the experiences of all. Think of a student turning the camera off because she watches her siblings while her mom, as an essential employee, goes to work at the grocery store. Imagine a teacher who doesn't feel supported at school for being open as a gay man and whose home is his place to be his authentic self. Should he ask his husband not to get a snack while he is teaching because the kitchen is also the classroom? Consider the student attending a private school on financial aid who does not want his classmates to know his family's socioeconomic status. Remember the students with insecure or no housing and those who don't have computers or wi-fi. 
  • Know that feeling exposed raises anxiety. Increased levels of anxiety make make learning, teaching, parenting, and deciding much more difficult.
  • Remember the normal. Even when students are physically in our classrooms, we aren't always able to tell if they are paying attention.
  • Understand that having cameras on or off is not the most critical factor in this scenario. It is a decision schools can make quickly and uniformly if they choose to do so. To be equitable, we need to be asking other questions such as:
    • How do we--and how should we--talk about equity in our schools?
    • How do we create space for our school community to share their experiences comfortably?
    • How do we listen to and respond to the experiences of our school community members?
  • Share with students your desire to teach them with a foundation of equity and partnership. Create student communication avenues such as surveys, email, and time after class to share their individual needs.
  • Apply the information gathered from the previous questions. Ask students how they can demonstrate their engagement with or without a camera. As we consider this transition, Talusan asks, "How did schools and organizations pay attention to the boundary-crossing that occurred during this time? What might schools and organizations do to engage in more culturally aware and responsive ways of entering into the home?" Administrators can ask teachers to share what has worked and what hasn't in their student, parent, and coworker interactions. Teachers can ask students what is working for them and what isn't in classrooms. 

In graduate school, I learned about systems theory. In brief, systems theory is the belief that organizations are like organisms changing as circumstances change. One tenet of systems theory is that active organizations must "pay attention to the external environment and take steps to adjust itself to accommodate the changes to remain relevant. " (from Five Core Theories -- Systems Theory--Organisation Development). If we consider schools as organisms, they too will have to change with the lessons learned during COVID-19. I hope one change will be viewing the experiences of students and teachers through the lens of equity. And it's not too late to do so now. We rushed to teach online and through packets as quickly as possible and did so for the best of reasons to continue educating our students, and we have already seen many adaptations to our environment. For example, many teachers see a need to reduce the amount of time they are spending teaching and increasing the amount of time with students working together. We can message to our communities a plan to be more firmly rooted in equity and recognize that often when inequities occur, they are unnoticed by those in the decision-making process. The goal is to create systems of communication of proactive education for students, professional development for teachers, and training for parents to create systemic and sustainable support for equity for all.

Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.

Author: Jen Cort
Number of views (1515)/Comments (0)/

Ending the School Year Remotely

The final weeks of the school year are full of bittersweet reflection on special memories and mixed feelings about the year to come. Students come together to say goodbye to their classmates for the summer, the first step in preparing themselves to come back to new teachers in the fall. For those beginning and ending middle school, it’s the start of an important transition and entirely new school experience. Underneath the outward excitement about warm weather, free time, and family vacations, the students process their hopes and fears for the coming months together, building strong friendships and opening up to new experiences.

Students making the transition into and out of middle school face the reality that they are leaving behind many of their friends and familiar routines and expectations. Things are going to be different, but they don’t entirely understand how. End-of-year celebrations and gestures of recognition usually provide some closure and give students an extra nudge forward into their next phase of education—but not this year. Some students will end their elementary school journeys, and eighth graders will finish middle school at home in front of a computer, if they have access.

As we wrap up our final units and communicate with students and their families about our schools’ plans for ending the academic year, we must take extra care to recognize the big transitions our students are making and express an understanding that they will need extra guidance and support. In AMLE’s position paper on the transition into and out of middle school, we emphasize that the transition to a new school is a process that takes place over time, not all at once during a ceremony or the first and last days of school. While some of the activities that make up your normal transition program will be more difficult to facilitate as a large group, the key factors at work are still there and still need to be addressed. It’s a good idea to review the procedural, social, and academic changes your students will be going through and work with other staff to share the responsibility of preparing students to transition while learning from home.

The biggest challenge of ending the middle school year remotely will be to establish relationships with incoming middle schoolers--who ended the year under traumatic circumstances and without typical preparation for middle school--and make more space for eighth graders to prepare for the transition to high school. They will need extra support with navigating their new school and space to voice their feelings about the upcoming transition to teachers, mentors, and each other. With communication and teamwork, school leaders, teachers, staff, parents, and students themselves can work together to ensure transitioning students build relationships at their new schools that will connect them with the knowledge and resources they need to thrive.

Here are some strategies your school can use now to ease your students’ transitions under shelter-in-place orders:

  • Reach out to high schoolers to speak to your eighth grade class and prepare incoming sixth graders by reaching out to elementary schools to see what was covered and how class was conducted during the pandemic.
  • Match incoming students with mentors to connect virtually or become email pen pals over the summer.
  • Give your current students the opportunity to write a message or make a video for students in the incoming grade, and ask freshman classes at your high school to do the same for your eighth graders.
  • Dedicate some class time to talking about the soft skills students will need to thrive in their new school. The Bridges Course at Graded, the American School of São Paulo, Brazil covers community, diversity, resiliency, and responsibility.
  • Create a vertical team of middle and high school teachers in your district to focus on adapting the transition process for your current circumstances.
  • Plan plenty of opportunities for peer and student mentor interaction early next school year for social and academic success.

Of course, whatever support you are able to organize at school will be greatly affected by the way each student’s family handles this transition at home. After weeks of remote learning, we know just how different each student’s home life is and how varied their parents’ ability to support and attitudes are towards schooling at home. It’s incredibly important now to show parents that teachers and school leadership are in their corner and support them with insights on how to motivate their middle schoolers at home. A strong home-to-school connection may be the most important lifeline for students in transition this year.

Ask parents to stay alert to signs of depression or anxiety in their child and seek help for students who are struggling. Whenever they identify anxieties related to their child’s new school, encourage parents to turn them into positive action by learning about those things that are anxiety-provoking (e.g., school rules, schedules, locker procedures). Encourage older siblings to connect with younger siblings to talk about their school experience and answer questions.

In order to create a moment of solidarity between students and families and raise funds for families battling cancer and at highest risk for COVID-19, AMLE has partnered with the HEADstrong Foundation on our #Family1st campaign. Friday, May 15 marks International Day of Families, and this campaign encourages families of middle schoolers to do something fun together for 27 minutes on that day or in the week following: HEADstrong will be sponsoring a TikTok Dance Challenge and awarding the family with the most creative video with gear, prizes, and recognition on social media.

Share these details with your students’ families and encourage them to participate!

Author: AMLE
Number of views (1043)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching

Equity in the Virtual Classroom

On a normal school day, you could walk into any middle school classroom in the world and find a group of young people with a wide range of experiences and identities, all in a unique moment of their development as human beings. The intellectual diversity of students is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of working with this age group, but when students and educators can’t gather in the physical space of a school, the classroom dynamics and activities teachers rely on to build the relationships that create a sense of equity are almost completely gone.

The task of “meeting students where they are” becomes much more literal and complex for educators; one of the first tasks for administrators has been to adapt breakfast and lunch programs to reach students who rely on their school to get enough to eat. The families that students typically leave at home during the school day are now ever-present as they are tasked with remote learning; for some, two parents are living and working at home, some have single parents caring for them, and some students are responsible for taking care of siblings. Most of these situations were very real and present for students before COVID-19, but now they are inescapable.

At the same time, teachers have a much harder time monitoring their students’ engagement and well-being. In the virtual classroom, a struggling student may be completely un-responsive, giving no indication why they are not engaging with learning modules or turning in work. Other students fall between the cracks and their learning gap widens because they don’t have the support they need to follow through and do their best. Assessing student work with equity in mind becomes a guessing game when each student has a different level of access to school materials and a different home experience.

If high-performing middle schools provide the best educational experience for their students when they create an equitable learning environment, how do we begin to translate those dynamics and practices to the digital space? When we get back to school, how do we use this experience to better adapt school services to meet students’ needs? It’s clear that taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach and giving all students the exact same learning opportunities is not sufficient to serve students from various backgrounds influenced by race, class, gender, and sexuality. That’s why AMLE is engaged in revising our landmark position paper This We Believe, scheduled for release this fall, to take these differences into account as things to be respected and embraced rather than considered a deficit or ignored.

Educators should examine how they can build a school community that models equity for students and families through policies and a culture that acknowledges differences and ensures that students are not punished for them. Students should see themselves reflected in that culture and expect to be respected as individuals. ALL school staff, including teachers, counselors, aides, and administrative and support staff can affirm the voices of all students in the school community.

Educators who practice continuous self-assessment and improvement should always be asking “What am I not seeing?” Teachers need to acknowledge their own cultural background to see their blind spots and gain an understanding of the complex social realities that students are experiencing, as they are always influenced by social identities. Modeling this kind of social responsibility and giving students the opportunity to do so ensures a culturally relevant and respectful education, which colorblind pedagogies are rarely able to provide.

The conversation on making middle school education a truly equitable experience is only just beginning. We have prioritized discussions on equity in our webinars and #mschats, so check out our upcoming topics and get involved!

Author: AMLE
Number of views (819)/Comments (0)/
Creating Norms When Nothing is Normal

Creating Norms When Nothing is Normal

The value of setting a learning framework with student input during remote learning

Norms are the patterns of behavior defining how we treat each other, ourselves, and our shared spaces. Norms exist in all physical and virtual classrooms. We often create norms at transition points such as the start of the year, term, or quarter. Typically, norms are listed on the walls, are not revisited often, and may be communicated to parents.

Norms exist in all settings. The question is, are they created intentionally or unintentionally? For example, when in school, intentional norms about seating are to assign seats and unintentional norms are when there is no seating assignment, but students sit in the same places each day. Intentional norms are essential and are attached to values. Intentional norms provide routines, agreements, consistency, and a framework for addressing difficult situations.

When reviewed consistently and created with equal contributions of students and teachers, intentional norms provide the guardrails for the classroom. Imagine the norms are the frame around a beautiful picture, with the picture being a reflection of students and teachers working together.

With COVID-19 bringing an entirely new teaching environment, many teachers find themselves reactively creating norms when situations arise. A teacher started her remote class and was frustrated because some of her students were in bed. Telling the students they must all be out of bed at the start of class elicited immediate negative responses. In this case, the teacher created a norm (must be out of bed) without attaching a value (presenting as “ready to learn”) or inviting students into the discussion.

Realizing values and student voice were missing, the teacher reframed the experience asking herself:

  1. What are the classroom values I want the norm to support?
  2. How will I communicate the values to the students?
  3. How will the student's voice be invited into, and heard, in the discussion?
  4. In what areas am I willing or unwilling to be flexible?
  5. How will I ask students what might be missing?

The teacher started class the next day with “I realize I forgot to have a norms discussion. The value I want our norms to support is showing up ready to learn, and I want us to work together to identify how this looks, feels, and sounds. While flexibility is important, some boundaries are necessary, including limiting outside distractions and listening for learning, rather than debate. Let's work together to create our norms, given how quickly things are changing; we will revisit our norms during our last class on Friday and will adjust as needed.”

The teacher asked students to be ready to co-construct norms the next day and invited them to share concerns privately if they had critical contributing factors they didn't feel comfortable sharing with the entire class. COVID-19 and remote learning disproportionately impact students with mental health concerns, physical disabilities, learning differences, lower socioeconomic status, and students who are members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, question/queer) community, and more. These experiences may be challenging to share with the entire class while being mindful of your school's requirements, so it is essential to create communication streams to allow students to share.

Learning online--and therefore viewing other's homes--can cause students, parents, and teachers to feel exposed. Addressed thoughtfully, the use of norms can help reduce instances of invasion of privacy. When the teacher invited students to share outside of class one student offered that he was in bed during class because it was the only spot in his room where his classmates could not see that he shared a small room with two siblings, while another shared that her anxiety was elevated with COVID-19, and being in her bed made her feel safer.

When the class met to work on norms, the teacher reminded them of the importance of equity. Without providing any identifying information, she incorporated questions such as, “how might we ensure we are not causing someone to disclose a private part of their lives while also being in class together?” The students and teacher collaborated and decided that to be in bed was allowed as were virtual backgrounds, however, students needed to be sitting up, dressed, and presenting as ready to learn.

Our “classrooms” are different now, calling into question how we create norms when nothing is normal. We might consider that while our settings are different, our need to treat each other with fundamental decency is unchanged. Therefore, we create intentional norms by:

  1. Outlining the goals and benefits of norms.
  2. Connecting all norms to values, noting those classroom practices not connected to values are probably habits rather than norms and may be unnecessary.
  3. Including the student voice, giving think-time, outlining the expectations of the discussion, and allowing personal concerns to be raised outside of the group discussion.
  4. Communicating your boundaries, remembering most of us are frustrated when we believe we are working as a group and the facilitator (in this case, the teacher) has not communicated intended outcomes or “no go” areas before the discussion.
  5. Ensuring you include norms for how the group will respond when the norms are challenged.
  6. Reviewing and revising regularly.
  7. Communicating the norms with students and parents or guardians.

If you are wondering where to start, you might pick one of your classroom values, use the steps above to plan, develop words to use with students, consider the “what if's” including how you will respond to challenges, and permit yourself to revise as needed. Intentional norms are even more critical as we are all faced with so many new situations, and we are comforted by as much consistency as possible.

More ideas on creating norms

Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.

Author: Jen Cort
Number of views (2273)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Not Just Tweens: Educators Need to Model Risk-Taking, Too

Not Just Tweens: Educators Need to Model Risk-Taking, Too

Four ways educators can lean into discomfort

To get from Reno to Lake Tahoe School in Incline Village, Nevada, a school official had to drive me up 6,500 feet of steep, narrow roads lined with snow banks. The air thinned as we ascended above the clouds, so she handed me two Advil as soon as we arrived. I needed to be able to present throughout the day and couldn’t afford to get a migraine.

“Altitude sickness—that’s a new one,” I told Bob Graves, the head of school, as we chatted that morning in his office. “I’m used to worrying about the talking part. Until recently, public speaking terrified me.” If Bob was alarmed, he hid it well. “Really? What changed for you?” he asked.

The short answer was that I was tired of getting in my own way, and I felt inauthentic prodding students to stretch while I played it safe. I had interviewed dozens of experts on risk-taking over the years and decided it was time to apply their advice to myself.

We’re all works in progress, and the start of a new decade is a good time to relinquish a few fears and chase long-shelved goals. As educators, we can spend so much time helping students realize their potential that we neglect our own growth. That's a mistake. If we want students to lean into discomfort, we have to take risks, too.

No matter where you are or what you hope to accomplish, here are four strategies that can help you summon the courage to fail.

Forget about yourself.

At my last school, I had to present to a small group of parents in the school library. You would have thought I had to give a TED talk to thousands. I couldn’t sleep for days before the event and was thoroughly depleted by the time it was over. I never wanted to feel that way again. I knew that small exposures extinguish phobias, so I resolved to accept every speaking invitation that came my way.

Fast forward a few years. I was about to deliver my first keynote address but got cold feet when I realized 600 educators would be in the audience. I retreated to the booth above the auditorium to pull myself together. After I took a few deep breaths, I texted Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure. She not only is one of the few people I know who presents all the time, she’s the type of person who will stop whatever she’s doing to help a friend. I prayed that she could get me back in working order.

“I can’t do this,” I told her. “I feel sick. There are too many people here, and they’re all going to be staring at me.” She kindly but firmly told me that no one cared about me. At all. “They want to know if you can help them help kids," she said. “That’s it.” She then suggested I play “You Will Be Found,” from the musical DEAR EVAN HANSEN. I listened to the lyrics, which describe a teen boy in emotional pain who desperately wants to be seen. Once I took myself out of the equation, I was good to go.

Start with the end goal.

Everyone defines risk differently. You might think it’s no big deal to apply for a promotion, but shy away from social risks. An educator might not apply for a team leader position because they don’t want to step on the toes of a friend who wants the position. Or a teacher might hesitate to express a contrary view at a faculty meeting because they worry they'll alienate or offend someone.

Many years ago, I initiated the screening process for a vulnerable student who needed academic interventions. A couple members of the special education team told me in advance that they opposed giving the child an IEP, so the tension was thick even before the first meeting. I anticipated a battle and did my homework but was stunned when the team cast protocol aside and hastily voted against services.

I never questioned whether I should report the infraction, but that meant calling out a couple of my own colleagues. I was scared that I’d permanently damage already-strained relationships. To deal with my fear, I shifted my focus to the end goal. I reminded myself that the student’s right to a fair process mattered far more than my discomfort. I shared my concerns with the principal, who determined that the child’s rights had been violated and instructed us to start over.

Take starter risks.

Risk-taking is like building muscle—it’s a slow, incremental process. To boost your confidence, take starter risks. If you don’t feel ready to present at a national conference, consider a local conference. If that’s too big a risk, try asking a question at the end of someone else’s presentation. If you aspire to write a book, start by submitting an article or contributing to a blog. If you’re not ready to share your ideas publicly, keep a journal, take a writing seminar, or post comments in a closed Facebook group.

The categories of risk don’t have to match. For example, if you want to change jobs but resist change, practice flexibility by trying a different gym or running route. Or join a recreational basketball team with players you don't know.

Capture the underdog effect.

Perhaps someone told you that you’re the wrong person to lead a new initiative, or run a staff meeting, or present at a conference. Or maybe you applied for a job and were told you don’t have what it takes to be successful. Instead of letting others define your limits, leverage the underdog effect. A recent study found that people who believe that others do not expect them to do well are more likely to receive higher performance evaluations from their supervisors. They work extra hard to prove others wrong. If there’s no setback, there can be no comeback.

It took me a long time to submit my first article to The Washington Post. I not only questioned whether my ideas were worth sharing, I worried that others would judge me for thinking I had ideas worth sharing. And then my first piece ran, and my worst fears came to life. A colleague called me a self-promoter and told me I had no business writing anything. I already was plagued by self-doubt, and the criticism nearly derailed me. But it also was a gift in disguise. No way was I going to stop writing and validate that person’s off-base assumptions about me. Frustration kept me moving forward.

Use negativity to your advantage. In fact, take special note of whatever trait most irritates your critics. If you amplify it, you might discover it’s your secret superpower. Stubbornness can morph into determination. Intensity can generate laser focus. Distractibility can lead to sudden bursts of insight.

It's not easy to take risks. All sorts of things can get in the way. But when we lean into discomfort and act with intentionality, we get to narrate our own story. And isn't that what we want to be modeling for our students?

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly Career Confidential column and tweets.
Author: Phyllis Fagell
Number of views (2554)/Comments (1)/
Specific, Candid, and Helpful Responses to Expressions of Racism and Bias

Specific, Candid, and Helpful Responses to Expressions of Racism and Bias

Tools for rehearsing responses to expressions of bias and racism in ourselves and others

An hour later, I had a list of all the things I should have said but didn’t. My colleague had failed to notice racist elements in her comments in the department meeting. In the moment, though, I was stunned, then angry: How could she not see it? How could she perpetuate the very thing we promised to eliminate? With rising adrenaline, I knew if I spoke, I’d stammer, my eyes watering a bit, and it would be an incoherent spew creating defensiveness from the offending colleague. So, I bit my tongue, wallowed in self righteousness, and promised myself to vent with a trusted colleague in another department. I heard and processed nothing else during the meeting.

It was not a proud moment.

We navigate many constituencies in our education lives: our students, their parents, administration, public opinion, researchers, political expediency, social media, and our own moral compasses. As a result, our world is full of regretted instants of would’ve-could’ve-should’ve. Sometimes, or a lot of times, we succumb to self-preservation at the expense of professionalism and students’ rights. T.S. Eliot captures it in, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”

    Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
    Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
    …But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
    I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
    And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat,
    and snicker,
    And in short, I was afraid.

    — Collected Poems 1909-1962 (1963), poetryfoundation.org

To say the right thing at the right time, especially with something so urgent and affecting as bias and racism, is on conscientious educators’ daily radar, but it can be difficult without rehearsal or versatility. So, let’s rehearse our responses to expressions of bias and racism in ourselves and others so those responses are at our mental fingertips in the moment when they are needed. And let’s build that wide collection of constructive responses so we are flexible and strategic in our statements. Consider the following as a starting point:

Invite Deeper Conversations

  • “Some people would see that as a racist comment. Is that what you intended?”
  • Play “innocent” and ask, “I don’t get it. How is that funny?”
  • As needed, give people the benefit of the doubt
    • Maybe you heard it differently or just didn’t understand: “I’m sorry. Can you say that again? I may have misheard you.”
  • “Is this something you would have said to a white/ Asian/Black/Hispanic, impoverished/affluent, heterosexual/homosexual/transgender, able-bodied person?”
  • “It’s been my experience that… Is this something you’ve experienced?”
  • “Tell me more about that.”
  • Ask questions of integrity and authenticity:
    • “Where does that thinking come from? Is that an unrecognized, inherited narrative?”
    • “Does that comment come from a place of nurture and support, or something else?”
    • “How does that align with your school/family/ faith/beliefs?”
  • Paraphrase — When responding to someone who questions our ideas or believes differently than we do, it helps to start with a clarifying question, not a re-defense of our opinion:
    • What I hear you saying is…
    • Let me make sure I have this correct…
    • In sum, then, you are worried that…
    • Do I have that right?
    • Did I hear that correctly?
    • It sounds like you’re saying that…
  • Change the frame/box/reality the biased/racist/ sexist person assumes is in play: “There are more elements here that take the issue beyond a binary classification: liberal/progressive, male/ female, black/white, Christian/Muslim, affluent/ impoverished, heterosexual/homosexual. It’s an intersection of at least four factors…”
  • Connect the offensive comments to larger, systemic causes of racism:
    “[After seeing a racial slur used by a teacher on Facebook] This behavior is linked to the increased suspension, expulsion, and detention of Hispanic youth in our schools and sets a bad example of behavior for the children witnessing the teacher’s racism that will influence the way these children are treated by their peers, and how they are treated as adults,” [and,] “That’s racist and it contributes to false beliefs about black workers that keeps them from even being interviewed for jobs…”
    — p. 34-35, Oluo
  • Raise bias awareness, suggest a change of wording: “How would that perspective be different if we used different words? For example, “What if we said, ‘our employees,’ instead of, “the Chinese in our company? How about, “retired veterans” instead of, “old geezers?” or, “our software engineer” instead of, “that autistic hire?”
  • Start with common ground: “Most of us want to feel like we have something to contribute, that we belong, would you agree?” “Neither one of us wants to be diminished by the other…” “What’s our goal here – to be heard? To vent and move on? Our children’s welfare?”
  • If it’s easier, start with discussions of the challenges with gender and religious discrimination, then move to racial discrimination.
  • Ask permission:
    • Would you mind if I shared an idea that comes to mind?
    • May I ask a question that may seem off topic but that may be helpful?
    • Would you care to work together to solve that problem?
    • I’d like to ask a someone else about how she handles such situations. Would that be okay with you? (based on – Toll, p. 75)
  • Give testimonials about what you believe. Choose not to remain indifferent. Realize you are modeling for others how to demonstrate courage of conviction, standing up for what you believe is morally right.
  • Borrow from educational coaching questions as you work through a concern with a colleague:
    • How do you feel the conversation went?
    • Would you have said anything differently?
    • What was your goal there?
    • What do you mean by….?
    • Are we diminished or threatened in some way by the elevation of someone else’s priorities/religion/ race/gender?
    • Is there another way to…?
    • How does that further your goal?
    • Describe a time when this was successful for you.
    • Let’s consider the situation from his/her point of view….
    • What does that tell you?
    • Is there anything to that?
    • Can you give an example of….?
    • Can you describe that further?
    • Let’s rehearse that moment
    • What do you recall about your own behavior during the conversation/lesson?
    • And what else?
    • How could we re-phrase that to better communicate your intent?
    • What did you do/decide that added to—or resolved—the issue?
    • “If this problem were solved what would it look like?” (Toll, p. 32)
    • What would a respected colleague do in this situation?
    • Let’s brainstorm some possibilities together.
  • Challenge statements of, “I’m colorblind,” and, “I don’t see race.” Start the conversation with, “You may not be aware of this, but such a mindset actually is a form of oppression of students of color. Could we talk about that for a moment?” Later, you may want to add, “When these statements are made by those in power, usually white teachers, they immediately diminish any student of color, declaring that their full identities and all that shapes them isn’t worth perceiving. I get that you’re trying to demonstrate that you see your students as individuals separate from any racial generalizations and stereotypes and thereby, you think you are not biased, but this very sentiment, let alone the act, comes from a place of privilege, being the majority race in power. It denies all that makes students of color full individuals. I wonder if we could use our privilege to confront and dismantle such thinking and practices.

In February 2020, high school teacher, author, and Education Week blogger, Larry Ferlazzo posed the question, “What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they don’t see race when they teach?” He invited experts and classroom practitioners to weigh in on the constructive responses. You can find the full, five-part series of blogs with dozens of responses at Larry’s Education Week blog site listed in the citing sources below. Here are a few of the compelling responses that have considerable power to spark conversation and transform thinking:

    How can you (an educator) have a relationship with me (a student) if you do not acknowledge all that makes me who I am? Diverse relationships should be sought out with the intention to honor one's whole self.
    — Makeda Brome, instructional math coach at Fort Pierce Westwood Academy in Fort Pierce, Florida, St. Lucie Public Schools Teacher of the Year 2019-20

    The impetus to pretend that one is colorblind when it comes to race is a misguided attempt to treat all students the same, when all students, even within any racial group, are different. The impetus to pretend that one is colorblind is essentially racist. It is wielding the power to erase the identity of students. To refuse to see.
    — Jamila Lyiscott, co-founder/director of the Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research, author of Black Appetite. White Food: Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom

    “Not seeing race” is an easy way out because if those educators saw race, they would see how systemic racism has affected every aspect of the education system. When educators tell me that race doesn't matter, I say that they've erased an opportunity to be anti-racist. They've squandered the moment and made it about them and their so called forward way of thinking instead of actually doing what's best for their students…
    — Julie Jee teaches 12 Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition and sophomore English

    The statement, “I don't see race,” represents the height of selfishness particularly when made by an educator. It says essentially, “I don't see your entire-life perspective as meriting my consideration. I will tell you how I think you should experience your existence.” …[It] is a selfish sentiment because it requires that students suspend their worldview in favor of vantage points that are more consistent with your own. It says, I will value your perspective given the extent to which it agrees with mine…. This is…a form of cultural imperialism.
    — Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy and policy-based efforts to redress the under performance of vulnerable student populations.

    [A]n important part of my response is to feel where I myself am still shaky as I engage with this person…Do I stumble or hedge when I…need to respond to an argument that blames marginalized people for their own marginalization? …So much of what I encounter every day as a white person will lead me to think that I am what's normal, and things are essentially as they should be. In the face of that, it is hard and sometimes lonely work to acknowledge that the world is wrong.
    — Sarah Norris works with educators across the country to create more equitable spaces for teaching and learning

    Racial history emerges as a source of pride when seen through the lens of resistance and survival against difficult odds…. Research shows that avoiding the topic with children serves to create racist mindsets, while investigating race correlates to higher self-esteem, increased self-confidence, academic achievement, and ethical leadership… Until racism can be seen, it can't be addressed. Until it is addressed, it can't be undone.
    — Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, authors of Let's Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom, and co founders of iChange Collaborative

Express Direct Desists

  • Stay silent, make steady eye contact.
  • Be direct: “I find that racist, and I’m not okay with that. It’s inappropriate.”
  • “You may not have meant to offend me, but you did. And this happens to people of color all the time. If you do not mean to offend, you will stop doing this.” - P. 173, Oluo
  • “You just assumed that without evidence. Let’s take a look at the evidence and correct that perspective.”
  • Explain that your being upset at the racist/ prejudicial comment or joke is not a matter of political correctness. It’s an indication that society has evolved and what was once funny or acceptable, is no longer so.
  • Walk away. Wait 24 hours. If possible, and no one will be harmed, wait one day, think clearly, then bring up the subject again with the offending person.

Avoid Blaming, Deflecting, Generalizing, or Being Dismissive

Examples of these unhelpful statements include:

  • “It’s your fault because you’re a racist.”
  • “No, it’s your fault because you expect something for nothing.”
  • “If __ people weren’t so self-centered…”
  • “If __ people weren’t so crime prone…”
  • “They can just get used to using the bathroom associated with their birth gender. It’s not the end of the world.”
  • “I didn’t intend it as a racist comment, they just took it that way.”
  • “This is just more liberal clamoring from Political Correctness Police.”
  • “There are already enough books on LGBTQ students. You’re just pushing your social agenda.”
  • “But these white, male authors are canon. To not teach them is not preparing them for society.”
  • “You’re such a conservative, you have no heart for the struggles of these people.”
  • “I can’t be racist: I don’t hate any people of color, I’m not in a white supremacist group, I don’t read those webpages, nor do I do any act of prejudice or racism with anyone I know.”

Helpful Dispositions During the Conversations

  • Give every clue that you value time with those of other cultures/orientations/faiths/politics as well as those with whom you disagree. Honor what the other person brings to the conversation. Make that respect visible.
  • Avoid publicly searching for a diplomatic way to word something before saying it: “Let me put this in a way you’d understand….” “How shall I put this?” This is demeaning of the other person, like he’s simplistic and incapable of understanding complexity.
  • If giving feedback in the moment, comment on decisions made and their outcomes: “I noticed you… As a result, we… Is that what you wanted?”
  • White silence in racist or biased situations or policies is consent. Say or do something if at all possible. It’s the same with other situations of bias/ prejudice against certain religions, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic class.
  • Avoid backing people into a corner unless their statements were unusually egregious. People don’t hear the message when they have to protect their honor or status. Help them find a road back to respect.
  • Speak in such a way as to continue thoughtful dialog, not prove that you are right or the problem is solved. It’s not about you providing the solution, it’s about the person arriving there.
  • Accept the fact that these conversations rarely tie up into a nice, neat bow where everyone sees the light and has come to their senses. We’ll have to be tolerant, at least at first, of messy human progress, ambiguity, unseen changes in perspective, irritation/pushback as a way to sort one’s thinking, and unresolved issues from the other person’s past—and our own!—affecting the current conversation.
  • Sit or stand next to the victim of someone being attacked for his or her race, gender, politics, or socioeconomic standing to assure them that they are not alone, and to communicate clearly to the offending person where you stand on the issue.
  • When considering whether or not to come to the aid of a person of color receiving racist or discriminatory comments, take the lead of that person and do it only if they are already engaged in it. (based on an idea in Oluo, p. 174)
  • Ask yourself if you’re deflecting to another topic rather than hearing and addressing the one raised by the other person.
  • “If you’re white and being called a racist, remember that you are not the only one being hurt.” p. 222, Oluo
  • We fight systemic racism not because we’re doing people of color a favor, but because this is what decent people do. “[We] are not owed gratitude or friendship from people of color for [our] efforts. We are not thanked for cleaning our own houses.” p. 210, Oluo
  • Not everyone in our place of employment shares our views regarding politics or race. Avoid assuming they do simply because they are members of this same group as you.
  • Use the first person, plural, we, not I or you as you can. It’s more inclusive, like we’re in this together.
  • Use tentative language (seems, might) and open ended questions that come across as a mutual partner in resolving the problem.
  • Breathe several times before responding.
  • Forgive yourself and others for making mistakes in these conversations, including inexact wording, unintended use of stereotypes, muddled thinking, and outright offending others.
  • Discuss systemic racism with people of our own color, and not just when there’s an upsetting racial incident. We’re able to respond more constructively when there is a racial/homophobic/religion-phobic incident when we already have the tools and perspective for the conversation.

With Prufrock, T.S Eliot had us sincerely wonder who we were to disturb the universe. Dylan Thomas admonished us to not, “go gentle into that good night,” and to instead, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Let’s draw from this welling moral outrage and our all-consuming desire for a just world and find the courage to react in a timely and effective manner to bias and racism, whether it be subtle or overt. Let’s care enough about our students and our colleagues to extend candor and to walk with them –and our own limitations—as we share the path ahead. This courage comes more readily when we have specific and practiced tools, so to simply read a few paragraphs of an article and promise to do better doesn’t cut it. Let’s say these challenging statements aloud and in front of colleagues in rehearsal and in real use, making them our own. Let’s find meaning in those conversations, and with that, the stamina to dismantle our own biases, and the strength to confront that which would oppress another. No more, would’ve-could’ve-should’ve – we’re ready to respond.

Recommended Resources

Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, Second Edition by Margaret Wheatley, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009

The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar, Jossey-Bass, 2013

Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction by Jim Knight, Corwin Press, 2007

Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), www.splcenter.org/teaching-tolerance, www.tolerance.org/publication/chapter-1-civildiscourse- classroom-and-beyond

Mayorga, Edwin; Picower, Bree. What’s Race Got to Do With It? How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequity, Peter Lang Publishers, 2015

Pollock, Mica; SchoolTalk: Rethinking What We Say About – And To – Students Every Day (Laying a Foundation for Equity), The New Press, New York, 2017

Stevenson, Howard C. Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference, Teachers College, 2014

Tatum, Alfred W. Reading for Their Life (Re) Building the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males, Heinemann, 2009

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all, Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin, Beacon Press, 2017

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, Beacon Press, 2018

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, Second Edition, by Paul C. Gorski, Teachers College Press, 2017

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegel & Grau, 2015

Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It, Second Edition by Shelly Tochluk, R&L Education, 2010

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, One World, 2019

Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education by Noliwe Rooks, The New Press, 2017

Culture, Class, and Race: Constructive Conversations That Unite and Energize your School and Community by Brenda Campbell Jones, Shannon Keeny, and Franklin CampbellJones, ASCD , 2020

Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race, Sue, Derald Wing, Wiley, 2016

Sources cited:

Ferlazzo, Larry – Blog, “Saying 'I Don't See Color' Denies the Racial Identity of Students, “February 2, 2020 10:34 PM, https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/classroom_qa_with_larry_ferlazzo/2020/02
/saying_i_dont_see_color_denies_the_racial_identity_of_students.html, Twitter: @Larryferlazzo.

Oluo, Ijeoma; So You Want to Talk about Race, Seal Press (Hachette Book Group), 2018

Toll, Cathy A. Educational Coaching: A Partnership for Problem Solving. ASCD. 2018.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His book, Fair Isn't Always Equal (second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018, and his latest book, Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, (second edition) (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was just released.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2020.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (1309)/Comments (0)/
Kinesthetic Mathematics in the Middle Grades

Kinesthetic Mathematics in the Middle Grades

Physical movement helps students engage in, investigate, and understand mathematics concepts


Young adolescents undergo more rapid and profound changes than at any other time in their development (NMSA, 2010). Adolescence is a pivotal stage for cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. Middle school educators understand the developmental uniqueness of this age group and seek to provide activities that fully engage the young adolescent. One way to accomplish this is through kinesthetic learning. We define kinesthetic learning as an instructional strategy that connects physical movement and social interaction with academic content. Kinesthetic activities incorporate physical exercise, stretching, and cross-body movements and are specifically connected to subject matter. The goal is to get students actively engaged and “learning by doing” as they investigate mathematics concepts through physical movement.

The Importance of Physical Activity

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2018), adolescence “is a critical period for developing movement skills, learning healthy habits, and establishing a firm foundation for lifelong health and well-being” (p. 47). Regular physical activity in children and adolescents promotes health and fitness, and the beneficial effects of exercise on learning are well documented. Movement increases the heart rate and stimulates brain function, which facilitates a child’s ability to learn. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services specifically advocates physical activity for brain health. They state that regular physical activity “results in improved cognition including performance on academic achievement tests, executive function, processing speed, and memory” (p. 40) as well as a reduced risk of depression. The cognitive benefits of physical activity apply to all students, including those with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Numerous studies support the conclusion that physical activity has a positive influence on memory, concentration, and classroom behavior. These studies indicate a significant positive correlation between fitness and standardized test scores in math. Furthermore, students who are more physically fit have fewer absences and fewer disciplinary referrals. These findings remain statistically significant when controlling for race, socioeconomic status, and gender.

Mathematics Content

There are many ways to actively engage students in learning mathematics content. Students “learn by doing” when they use their hands, arms, legs, and bodies as tools for learning. We advocate the use of purposeful movement that is directly connected to the content being taught. This is very different than asking students to recite multiplication tables while doing jumping jacks. We argue that many students have procedural knowledge but lack conceptual understanding.

Instead of asking students to memorize isolated facts and algorithms, consider asking students to dramatize mathematics concepts through motion. For example, students can act out points on a Cartesian coordinate system and walk through shifting and stretching functions. A Twister mat can be used to introduce the concept to younger students. Other kinesthetic activities might include acting out operations on a number line; teaching translations, rotations, and reflections by dancing the Electric Slide; and finding the mean, median, and mode of a data set after constructing a human graph. What follows are descriptions of three kinesthetic activities that can be used to support and extend specific mathematics concepts.

The Metric Handshake/Metric Salute

Many students in the U.S. struggle to associate benchmarks to metric units of length. In order to strengthen their knowledge, hands-on measuring is beneficial. Estimating using familiar body measures can assist with foundational understanding. For example, for a young adolescent, the distance between one shoulder bone and the length of the other arm with fingers extended is about one meter. The distance between the space from the thumb and pinky is approximately one decimeter. The distance across the tip of the pinky is approximately one centimeter. The thickness of a fingernail is about one millimeter. This leads to a fun, cool handshake students can use to greet one another.

Listed here are step-by-step motions for practicing four basic benchmark measures of length.

  1. While holding your right hand with fingers extended to your left shoulder in a saluting formation, call out “Salute.”
  2. Extend your right hand, palm down with fingers straight, from the left shoulder position to fully extended to the right. Say, “meter.”
  3. Move palm up and extend thumb and pinky finger (pointer, tall man, and ring man fingers curled down into palm). Say, “decimeter.”
  4. Hold the pinky in a vertical position while folding in all other fingers. Call out, “centimeter.”
  5. Rotate the pinky a quarter turn to display the thickness of the fingernail. Call out, “millimeter.”
  6. For additional cool factor and pizzazz, students can join pinkies to finalize the metric signals in a trendy handshake.

Angle Exercises

Angle exercises utilize the arms as the rays of an angle. While everyone is standing, the leader calls a type of angle while the others attempt to model it. To model a right angle, for example, hold one arm parallel to the floor in a horizontal direction and the other in a vertical direction. To model an acute angle, position the arms closer together with a narrow space between them. Modeling an obtuse angle moves the arms wider. Arms extended in opposite directions represents a straight angle of 180°. To challenge students and accelerate the pace, gradually increase the call rate of the angle types. If space is limited, it may be necessary to use fingers instead of arms to demonstrate the angles.

Once the basic angle concepts are introduced, prompt students to consider other measurements. If a right angle is 90°, what is the measure of half that angle? What type of angle is it? What if an angle is exactly halfway between a right angle and a straight angle? What type of angle is it? What is its measure? Discuss that an acute angle is between 0° and 90°. Discuss characteristics of obtuse angles and the measures between 90° and 180°. Progress to calling more complex angles using specific measurements. The students’ performance with the arm motions can provide valuable formative assessment opportunities.

Angle exercises establish benchmark measurements and set the foundation for students’ progression to measuring angles with a protractor. We can then connect their arm motions with the procedure for precision measuring with the protractor.

Quadrilateral Stretches

Help your students learn the characteristics of quadrilaterals. Students often find it difficult to classify quadrilaterals and distinguish between the categories. Is a square a rectangle? Is a rectangle a square? Are all rectangles squares? Are rectangles parallelograms? Some rectangles are rhombi. All squares are rhombi, rectangles, and parallelograms. Quadrilateral stretches will give students the opportunity to model quadrilaterals and explore how small changes impact their similarities and differences.

  1. With a little stretch of the imagination and the arms, students can make air figures modeling quadrilaterals. Start by demonstrating a common quadrilateral. To model a square, hold both arms up in front of your body and bent at the elbows. With forearms straight up and equidistant, the width represents congruent sides. Imagine the top and bottom sides. With all sides equal and right angles, the quadrilateral is a square.
  2. From this position, stretch the square by sliding the forearms to the right (and/or left). The quadrilateral changes to a rectangle (and technically a parallelogram). Lean both forearms to the right to transform the rectangle into a unique parallelogram. This demonstrates a lazy, leaning parallelogram by holding both arms up bent at the elbows, shoulder length apart, and tilted in the same direction. The arms represent the width. Imagine the top and bottom sides as the length. In a parallelogram, opposite sides are congruent and parallel. Keeping the forearms tilted, slide the arms toward each other until the width aligns with the height. The parallelogram has now achieved another title, transforming into a rhombus. Straighten the shape with vertical forearms again and re-make the square.
  3. Vary the order of the quadrilateral stretches and discuss how stretching and tilting, widening, narrowing, transforms the shape and changes its properties. Slide the forearms back together and upright to re-create the square. Discuss the various names of the figure. Tilt the square to create a rhombus. Stretch the square to create a rectangle.
  4. Start with a leaning parallelogram. Slide the forearms in to make a rhombus. Stand it upright to make a square. Stretch the square to make a rectangle. All squares are parallelograms, rectangles, and rhombi. Some rhombi are squares, but only when they have right angles.
  5. Be sure to emphasize that there are several ways to model parallelograms. All square, rectangles, and rhombi are classified as parallelograms.
  6. Create a trapezoid by collapsing one vertical side of a square or rectangle. Identify the stretch as modeling a “right trapezoid.” What figure can be demonstrated by collapsing both vertical sides—an isosceles trapezoid.
  7. To challenge students and accelerate the pace, gradually increase the call rate of the types of quadrilaterals.


Middle level educators value young adolescents and understand the complex developmental needs of this age group. Kinesthetic learning facilitates students’ physical development by providing more opportunities for movement; social development with more interaction; emotional development with more engagement; and cognitive development with active learning. Kinesthetic strategies offer purposeful learning experiences and provide alternatives to whole-class lecture. Students learn by doing as they move their bodies to investigate mathematics concepts. We all want our students to be active learners rather than passively receiving information. We argue that physical movement and social interaction are essential in the middle school classroom. In this way, teachers can meet the unique developmental needs of young adolescents while effectively teaching mathematics content.


National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2018). Physical activity guidelines for Americans (2nd ed.). Washington, DC. Retrieved from: https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf

Deborah McMurtrie, PH.D. is an assistant professor and middle level education coordinator /program director for South Carolina’s Center of Excellence in Middle-level Interdisciplinary Strategies for Teaching (CEMIST) at the University of South Carolina, Aiken.

Bridget Coleman, PH.D. is an assistant professor and leads the Secondary Mathematics Education program at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. She’s also the past president of the South Carolina Professors of Middle Level Education (SC-PoMLE).

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2020.
Author: Deborah McMurtrie and Bridget Coleman
Number of views (636)/Comments (0)/
Topics: STEMTeaching
Science Happens in MY Neighborhood

Science Happens in MY Neighborhood

Engaging middle schoolers in local issues helps them apply knowledge and become informed citizens

Environmental science knowledge intertwined with cultural practices have ripple effects that impact many aspects of society. For example, the increase in the use of fertilizer and practices of overfishing have resulted in red tides and dead zones within waterways, where nothing is able to grow. It is important for students to have formal instruction to engage with these topics, preparing them to be scientifically literate members of society. A powerful way to engage middle school learners is to use socio-scientific issues to teach environmental science. Socio-scientific issues (SSI) are those that deal with topics that can be debated and relate scientific understanding to making real world decisions (Zeidler & Kahn, 2014).

We cannot assume that middle school students have had experience with meaningful high-quality, hands-on science units. Therefore, it is important to provide them with appropriately challenging coursework that meets individual needs. Teaching with SSIs reaches students that come to the classroom with a wide range of background knowledge. This article provides an example of an SSI unit in which students review their knowledge of scientific thinking, ask self-designed experimental questions, and conduct an experiment to test their question. Their final writing project allows students to use their knowledge of science and their community to propose a solution to a local need. First, a brief overview will be provided about the value of these types of strategies.

Benefits of Exploring Local Socio-Scientific Issues

The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) asserts that students need to know, understand, and be able to apply their knowledge of science (NSTA, 2016). This is part of being a scientifically literate member of society. To do this, students must be exposed to lessons that explore socio-scientific issues and be taught how to use their knowledge in a local context. Learning in this manner is highly engaging and personalizes science as a practice for students (Birmingham & Barton, 2013). Additionally, using local events provides an opportunity for students to connect personal experiences to the content they are learning and allows them to contribute to the community.

The utilization of SSIs also supports the middle school concept advocated for by AMLE. For example, students learn science concepts and applications in the science classroom, discuss issues of policy in social studies, refine their writing and communication skills in English language arts, and plan for budgets in the mathematics classroom. Integrated learning such as this is a powerful method for students to make realworld connections and understand content at a deeper level. In the next section, a brief unit of instruction is provided that demonstrates an example of teaching an SSI in the context of an ecology lesson.

SSI Environmental Science Lesson

This unit of instruction allows students to apply scientific practices in context and makes learning relevant for students. It fits in an instructional sequence where students have previously learned about asking scientific questions, experimental design, and a basic knowledge of ecology and needs of plants. Students are placed into research groups.


This lesson begins with the teacher showing the class an image of a vacant city lot (see figure 1).

Students are asked to quietly write out reflections on the following questions:

  • Describe the abiotic and biotic factors that you see in this environment.
  • What is growing here? Why?
  • What types of plants might we want to grow here? Why?
  • How could we engineer this environment to grow your chosen plant?

Figure 1
Vacant Lot

After five minutes of individual reflection, students discuss their answers in a group. The teacher places four posters around the room with the previous questions written on top of each as a prompt. This small group discussion allows students to build on prior knowledge and brainstorm ideas. A group representative writes the responses on the posters. During group writing, the teacher reads the responses to formatively assess student thinking. Then, she leads class discussions on each of the topics. Students are then presented with the project topic: They will determine needs of plants that they choose to grow in this space.

Community Garden – Lab Practice

To acclimate students to this type of research, they complete a practice lab analysis. Analysis should be completed in research teams, with student discussion about each of the prompts. During this time, the teacher formatively assesses student knowledge of experimental design and responds appropriately to clear up misconceptions. This activity allows students to practice their research skills that will be needed for future activities and provides an opportunity to practice collaboration (see practice worksheet in figure 2).


Explore: Research Proposal

Groups identify a plant that they wish to grow in this space. They justify the choice of a plant using a combination of research and knowledge of their local community. Each group develops a research proposal to identify needs of the chosen plant in their local environment. Students complete the planning template (see figure 3) and turn it in to the teacher for approval. After approval, they execute their experiments by collecting data over the next month. Students develop their scientific practice skills while taking ownership of their work as they watch their plants grow.

Figure 3

Research Proposal – Community Garden Initiative

(In order for your project to be funded your plan must be complete!)
  1. My question: (Remember the format)
  2. Experimental Design:
      a. Independent Variable (you can only have one)

      b. Dependent variable (what you are measuring)

      c. Constants (you should have many)

      d. Procedure: (step-by-step, be specific)

      ***Describe the types of data you will collect***

      e. Qualitative data:

      f. Quantitative data:

Explain: Poster Presentation

Finally, students present their findings through a poster presentation. The presentation highlights their experimental question, methods, and findings from their research. The conclusion section contains a discussion about whether their proposed plant would be a good fit for their neighborhood environment and in what ways it will serve a community need. The teacher assists students in putting their posters together and facilitates student presentations to the class. This activity helps students develop their scientific writing and speaking skills.

Evaluate: Individual Persuasive Essay

After the groups have presented their findings, students use their knowledge of all groups’ research to write a two paragraph persuasive essay arguing which plant should be planted in the vacant lot. The argument should be made based on ways this plant meets community needs, the requirements for growth, and the amount of work/cost required to engineer the plot of land. They make their claim using evidence from the research findings. This essay provides a rich opportunity for students to use their knowledge and skills in a real-life situation, forming a good foundation for developing scientific literacy.

Collaboration Opportunities

This activity could be modified to include all content area teachers. For example:

Social Studies – In depth research about identifying needs of communities, study of their local economy and community, or a study of food deserts, https://www.tolerance.org/lesson/food-deserts-causesconsequences-and-solutions

English Language Arts – Writing letters to the local city council proposing their plan

Mathematics – Determining a budget and space requirements for the implementation of scaling up the project

Cross-curricular learning benefits students by allowing them to apply skills in a more complex manner.

Project Impact

This project helps students learn to think scientifically, solidify their understanding about the needs of plants, and apply their knowledge to serve a local need. All aspects develop students toward the goal of becoming a scientifically literate member of society. Although this example demonstrates the use of socio-scientific learning within an urban environment, the process could be replicated and modified to fit any school community. For example, students in a rural environment could explore the impact of local farming practices on water quality. Regular practice engaging in these types of activities engages students to promote civic action. Civic action by scientifically literate members of society is critical to maintain good stewardship of our local, state, and national communities.


Birmingham, D. & Barton, A. (2013). Putting on a green carnival: Youth taking educated action on socio-scientific issues. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51(3), 286-314.

National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). (2016). NSTA Position Statement: Teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues. Retrieved from https://www.nsta.org/about/positions/societalpersonalissues.aspx

Zeidler, D. & Kahn, S. (2014). It’s debatable: Using socio-scientific issues to develop scientific literacy K-12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Lise Falconer, M.A., NBCT is a middle school science specialist with the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2020.
Author: Lise Falconer
Number of views (296)/Comments (0)/
Topics: STEMTeaching
A Haiku Master and Dreams on Display

A Haiku Master and Dreams on Display

Enriching the curriculum and boosting middle school student engagement with the arts

We don’t need statistics to know that a curriculum lacking in arts is boring, but too often when budgets are cut, the fun parts of being in school for children are the first to be eliminated. The notion that schools with limited budgets implies having limited resources or opportunities for students never crosses my mind. Instead, I believe that schools in high need communities can access ample resources that offer a more enriching curriculum and integrate the arts to empower youth, change mindsets, develop creativity, and engage students.

I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at a middle school, and part of my role involves supporting content teachers in their classrooms. Last year I worked with a colleague—a seventh grade language arts teacher—on a unit about poetry. He wanted his students to write poems in the Japanese poetic form of haiku. My English language learners struggled to understand even after I translated the lesson. They lacked background knowledge on poetry and had difficulty breaking words down into syllables. Instead, they counted the silent endings like in the word “through.” Once they understood that part, they asked “What’s Japan?”

Opportunities for Collaboration

Even when our planning time is during the same period, too often it isn’t feasible to meet face-to-face with colleagues, so we found other ways to collaborate. Initially we exchanged ideas by e-mail and as the project time approached, we met before school. We both wanted our students to understand and enjoy the unit.

My colleague shared the language arts standards he wanted to meet and I shared those for English of other languages. Once we had outlined all standards we wished to cover, I began searching among my connections in our community and using LinkedIn for an available guest to help make the lesson more relevant and exciting. My colleague helped by creating an exit activity on Google classroom and sharing activities we could both use to prepare for the unit project.

Through my search on ways to enhance the poetry unit, I secured Mr. Satogata, a Japanese American Haiku master, artist, and calligrapher to spend the day with us. It was a rare treat. He came early, set up the classroom, and even brought treats for students to sample from Japan. This activity was offered to all students including English speakers.

Making it Special

As part of the planning, we enlisted the help of our librarian and reached out to the high school art teacher, who sent her students during each period to take photos of the activity. Prior to the visit, students composed their haikus, wrote thank you notes, and designed a large banner to welcome our guest.

Since I teach larger groups and have a bigger classroom, I swapped rooms with my colleague for the day to make way for the seating and art project. We also secured parental permission for students to take photos. For those who did not, we took note to respect their wishes.

Students expressed that they had been looking forward to the guest visit. At the end of each class, students lined up to take a photo with him and many asked for his autograph. At the end of the day, Mr. Satogata asked me what I was going to do with the welcome banner, so my students presented the banner to him along with their thank you notes. While he expressed it was a tremendous experience for him, students shared the same sentiment. One ESL student was so excited about the visit, saying “I never met a person from Japan before!”

On our school website, we posted the photos and sent the link to our guest. Although we didn’t have it in our budget to pay for his time or the food he brought, he eagerly volunteered to return again next year because he enjoyed his time with us. That is a critical component for all visits: making sure guests feel valued and at ease.

Elevate the Standards

In seventh grade reading class, students learned about the civil rights movement while the ESL students struggled to follow along with the televised recording of “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr. I asked students to write about a dream they have and what steps they would take to achieve their goal. The activity combined several prompts that my students were doing in different classes, including writing smart goals, learning about the social justice movement, and understanding Dr. King’s speech.

I extended this activity to all students including non-ESL students to write a detailed essay for a project called The Dream Goes On. As I started the activity, a few students asked to speak to me privately, so private that it needed to be outside of the class. We stepped in the hallway and one by one they confided their belief that people like them don’t dream—at all. I was baffled. How could youth so young already have this limiting mindset? “Besides, nobody will read mine anyway. Well you have to, but that’s it!” one student told me.

I don’t set out to prove my students wrong, but I wanted to show them a world that is caring and eager to read their dreams. I searched online for contact information and sent an email to the Freedom Center in Cincinnati requesting to meet face-to-face to talk about collaborating on this project. I didn’t hear back so I searched for a specific contact at the center. It worked. During the meeting, I shared about the work that students have done and asked for permission to have my students display an exhibit. This way a lot of people could read the dreams my students wrote. Permission was granted! It meant that I needed to guide students in installing a museum-worthy display.

Two students from my English Learners posing by their drawing of Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of a large display at the Cincinnati Freedom Center

13 Ways to Bring the Arts and Community Talent to Your Classroom

  1. Include the wishes of your students. Their needs and input help by showing you what matters to them.
  2. Focus on the standards instead of the activity. It is easier to partner with colleagues when their content standards are integrated in the activity or project.
  3. Expand your network by volunteering for various organizations.
  4. Take the time to find out what’s already available. When I seek ways to enhance lessons, I look for resources and opportunities that exist within the community because people want to invest in their youth.
  5. Be specific with your wishes. People want to help but often don’t know how.
  6. Teach gratitude. I take the time to teach students to thank their guests in person and with a handwritten note.
  7. Find creative ways to recognize your volunteers. My students have nominated guests for awards. Guests feel honored to be remembered and nominated, and the thought matters more than the outcome.
  8. Join different organizations. Through my membership in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, I have met many authors who have already committed to volunteering to talk at my school.
  9. Involve students in enlisting help. Their families may have unique leads.
  10. Being excited about an idea is contagious. I had family members sponsor my students for camps and donate to my projects or in my name to my school.
  11. Make it special for the guests. Students can offer to give a school tour and introduce guests to the administrators and other teachers. This creates a special rapport between youth and our guests.
  12. Obtain parent permission. This serves to inform parents about upcoming activities and to double check permissions for photo releases.
  13. Give grants a chance! It is not accurate that one must always dot all their i’s and cross their t’s—compelling proposals get funded.

Through the arts, students delved into the project. Ironically, although most students will not stay after school to catch up on missed work, many volunteered long hours on the weekend and after school to design this project. We had a very short timeframe for the exhibit creation, and through hard work these students did it. They put a lot of effort in being artistic. My advanced ESL students took the time to translate the “I Have a Dream” speech into Spanish, which helped those with less English fluency understand.

Using arts elevated the project, engaged students into coming to school during the weekend, and offered a forum to include parental help, making it possible for these students to have their dreams on display to be read by many. Next year, I have already lined up a Japanese Tea Master to demonstrate a tea ceremony and several authors, storytellers, and speakers have committed to volunteer their time at our school. These community guests are eager to share their skills and time to bring learning to life. When it comes to the ability to make learning fun and engaging, it doesn’t matter that my district serves youth from low-income homes or that we have 79% of students on free/reduced meals, because the resources and opportunities available for our students are abundant.

Leila Kubesch teaches at Norwood (Ohio) City Schools and is the 2020 Ohio Teacher of the Year and a finalist in the 2020 National Teacher of the Year award program. She is the recipient of a $10,000 Teaching Tolerance Grant for the project From Page to the Stage: Helping Youth Find Their Voice Through the Visual and Performing Arts, the 2019 Ohio Torch Teacher of the year, and the 2019 OEA Award recipient.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2020.
Author: Leila Kubesch
Number of views (584)/Comments (0)/
How to “F-L-I-P” Your Middle Grades Classroom

How to “F-L-I-P” Your Middle Grades Classroom

Four pillars of flipped classrooms to help teachers with distance learning during COVID-19

Recent mass school closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic have educators everywhere seeking ways to provide meaningful distance learning. In response, some educators are developing instruction around a hybrid model of the flipped classroom. Similar to the traditional model, students in a hybrid model prepare outside class assignments using online tools and technologies in preparation for their upcoming face-to-face class meeting.

The flipped classroom is built around the four “pillars” of a flipped classroom: F- flexible environment, L- learning culture, I- intentional content, and P- professional educator (Flipped Learning Network, 2014). We posit that these same “pillars” can be applied to develop a fully online flipped classroom in which students meet with the teacher either synchronously or asynchronously, instead of in person. We offer this alternative model of the flipped classroom to meet the growing demand for distance learning, especially given the current large-scale school closings. Developing a completely online flipped classroom is not difficult, but it can take time, so we have included numerous hyperlinks to resources to get you started.

(F) Start with a Flexible Environment
Begin by selecting a platform that will be the foundation of your online classroom and hub for all your instructional activities and resources. Developing a flexible environment is the first pillar of a flexible classroom, so don’t be afraid to mix technologies, such as a class wiki to upload presentations, photos, videos of yourself teaching, activities, etc. Using what is already familiar to students will streamline the process and make navigating the online flipped classroom easier for them. If starting from scratch, take advantage of online platforms available through your school or school district. Many middle schools, for example, use Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Schoology, or Edmodo. Free platforms such as WebEx and Udemy also work well.

(L) Create the Learning Culture
Once you’ve chosen your platform, determine a layout for the online space. Like your face-to-face classroom, you will want to create a positive learning culture. One way is by making the space aesthetically pleasing, organized, and easy to navigate. Sometimes less is more, so try not to go overboard with images and designs. These can distract learners. Next, decide how you will organize learning. For example, developing instruction around learning modules is a popular and easy way to manage your online flipped classroom. Within each module, it’s important to make learning standards and objectives visible so students can see at a glance what they’re learning. You will also need a space (tabs or folders) to store instructional materials, documents, activities, and presentations. Next, integrate collaboration, such as discussion boards (i.e., Quicktopic and NowComment) or online chats (i.e., Hangouts Meet, WhatsApp, Zoom), which provide user-friendly tools to get you and your students communicating and sharing ideas.

(I) Integrate Intentional Learning
The internet is a warehouse for educational resources, so select learning activities and tools that support intentional learning and engagement (Albert, Pettit, & Terry, 2016). Intentional learning occurs when we purposefully select the technologies, tools, and resources that align with our instructional standards, engage students in learning, and support them in achieving their learning targets. Interactive read alouds, games (Kahoot!; Quizlet), and simulations (Phet simulations) actively engage students. Also consider your textbook’s online resources and personalized learning resources, such as Khan Academy and CK-12 for an interactive curriculum. These provide a wealth of learning support through PowerPoints, audios and videos, practice activities, and assessments.

(P) Harnessing Your Professional Educator Self
As in face-to-face classrooms, the teacher’s role in an online flipped classroom is to facilitate learning. In online spaces this means being available to your students virtually, providing instructional support, and feedback. For example, you might include live instructional videos (Screencastify) or moderate synchronous sessions. An added bonus to streaming live is the teacher’s presence, which also contributes to a positive learning climate (see ClearSlide, Animoto, and Vimeo).

We acknowledge the barriers to developing an online flipped classroom approach, foremost access to technology and the internet by all students (Dugan, 2016). Fortunately, many providers are offering free Internet during this crisis for either those with K-12 students (Charter Communications) or for low-income families (Comcast/Xfinity and TDS Telecom). Other numerous challenges include the mental and emotional challenges students face due to anxiety over changes in routines, learning expectations, and family dynamics.

Despite these challenges, we live in a technologically-advanced world, one that allows us to connect, work, and learn across physical barriers. Albers, Pace, and Brown (2013) state, “Networked technologies have had a highly visible impact” so much that “we are not just connected, but networked, socially, technologically, and intellectually” (p. 100). Fully online flipped classrooms can stabilize learning during this fragile time, provide effective instructional experiences, and proffer social interaction that current social distancing does not allow. Additionally, an online flipped classroom, when implemented as suggested, meets the criteria for middle grades “curriculum [that] is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant” (NMSA, 2010, p. 17).

We recognize this is a challenging time for numerous reasons, particularly the anxiety of the unknown surrounding the virus, as well as acknowledging the vital role schools play in our daily lives such as feeding children who might not otherwise have a meal. Many uncertainties still exist, such as schooling during the summer and the legality of meeting special education accommodations in a virtual format. We can, however, offer the online flipped classroom as one solution. Given the current state of education under the COVID-19 crisis, implementing a completely online version of the flipped classroom makes sense so students do not fall behind in their learning.

This is an uncertain time in our world, our nation, and in education. Yet, we must continue moving forward, for to remain stagnant suggests powerlessness. So, go ahead, flip your middle grades classroom in favor of one designed fully online instead.

Albers, P., Pace, C. L., & Brown, Jr., D. W. (2013). Critical participation in literacy research through new and emerging technologies: A study of web seminars and global engagement. Journal of Literacy and Technology, 14(2), 78-114. http://www.literacyandtechnology.org/uploads/1/3/6/8/136889/jlt_14_2_albers_pace_brown.pdf
Albert, C. D., Pettit, S. K., & Terry, C. (2016). Flipping out: Understanding the effects of a general education flipped classroom on student success. University of California Press.
Dugan, M. J. (2016). Flipping the social studies classroom: More reasons you should consider flipping your classroom. AMLE Magazine. http://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet.aspx?ArtMID=888&ArticleID=626
Lage, M. J., Platt, G. J., & Treglia, M. (2000). Inverting the classroom: A gateway to creating an inclusive learning environment. Journal of Economic Education, 31(1), 30-43. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1183338?seq=1
National Middle School Association [NMSA]. (2010). This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Christi L. Pace, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia.

Stacie K. Pettit, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the College of Education at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia.

Author: Christi L. Pace, Ph.D. and Stacie K. Pettit, Ph.D.
Number of views (1149)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
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